Taking on the Accreditation Monster Requires the Right Tool

By Peter Roff & Gordon Jones
June 08, 2023

First published in Real Clear Education

The importance of creativity in problem-solving cannot be underestimated, especially in the realm of public policy. When confronting a task, it’s important to make sure that you have the right tool, especially if you want to be bold. Remember the old saying about how, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

A trio of United States senators – Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Utah’s Mike Lee – have introduced legislation that addresses the increasing use of government accreditation to enforce “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” on America’s college campuses. DEI has little to do with diversity, equity, or inclusion. It has rather to do with enforcing uniformity of subject matter, faculty thought, and student indoctrination.

The trio is to be commended for its effort, but these senators are taking pruning shears to a problem better handled with an axe 

We’re not talking about the problems associated with DEI, a program that purposefully sets aside the idea that character, intellect, and merit matter more than what a person looks like or where he comes from. It’s pernicious, all right, but we’re more concerned about the means by which it is being spread from campus to campus.

It’s not, as some would have you believe, an organic phenomenon. It’s happening because the people in charge of accreditation for institutions of higher education have made it a priority.

Most people think that a college’s leadership decides what it wants to teach and how. Few things could be further from the truth.

In almost all cases, a college will seek approval of its faculty, facilities, and curriculum from an accrediting agency, dozens of which exist across the country. Some are subject-matter-specific, like the American Board of Funeral Service Education, and others to a geographical area, like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. What they all have in common is that these agencies’ participation in the process must be approved by the Department of Education. You can see where this is going 

During his days as Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett made an unsuccessful effort to dismantle the federal monopoly on accreditation. The federal government’s grip on higher education only tightened.

However useful accreditation might originally have been, these days the Internet is awash with information about institutions of higher education, and any justification that once existed for accrediting organizations has disappeared. Most graduate and professional schools today care more about what students know than where they learned it, and that is as it should be. Score well on the MCAT, and Yale Medical School wants you. Get a perfect score on the LSAT, and Stanford Law School will admit you (even if you haven’t applied, as happened to one of us).

Accreditation may have utility in a few areas. One is the transfer of credits from one school to another. But even here, it’s not clear that accreditation is truly needed. Students seeking to transfer credits already face screening from the receiving school; and if the NCAA can (almost overnight) create a Transfer Portal for student-athletes wishing to change schools, surely all those academicians could create one that matched students up with where they would be best served.

Let’s return to the Rubio-Lee-Scott bill. The Fairness in Higher Education Accreditation Act prohibits the use of DEI and/or affirmative action in decisions about accreditation or non-accreditation. That is well and good, but even if it were enacted – an unlikely outcome, even were Joe Biden not the president – the structure of accreditation would remain as it is today.

Accrediting agencies would continue to use DEI, just under another name. The Supreme Court is preparing to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions, but college admission committees are already saying that they will not comply with an outcome that conflicts with their intentions. In the event of the Court’s (expected) ban of affirmative action, the admission committees will simply change the terminology. Accrediting agencies will do the same thing if the Rubio-Lee-Scott bill passes. The senators will be vilified for their efforts to “gut” (or in the case of Ivy League schools, “eviscerate”) efforts to rectify 400 (or possibly 4,000) years of discrimination against African-Americans. 

The senators might just as well drop those pruning shears, pick up an axe, and go after the root of the problem. If colleges did not need accreditation, there would be no need to tinker with what specific policies and procedures a college employs.

Peter Roff, a former columnist for U.S. News & World Report, is affiliated with several Washington, D.C. public policy groups that deal with education. Gordon Jones co-founded Utah’s Mount Liberty College, where he teaches the Development of Civilization.